There is one truly striking shock in the new made-in-Hong-Kong-by-Thai-directors horror flick The Eye, but unfortunately, directors Danny and Oxide Pang saved the best for first. If the film's opening moments don't grab you, nothing will; the Pang Brothers cut their teeth on commercials, and the first few minutes play like a brilliant trailer for what is to follow. If only the whole movie could be as striking.

The Eye boasts scares aplenty; that isn't the problem. It's a good night's entertainment, if all you want is to jump out of your seat a few times, and you don't mind reading subtitles in the process. If you're a long-time horror fan, however, the shocks are somewhat mitigated by the game of "spot the reference" you'll be playing as the story unfolds. It borrows from the best: Hideo Nakata's Ringu and Dark Water are cribbed from, as is The Sixth Sense and even the underrated The Mothman Prophecies (the Pang Brothers and I seem to be the only ones who enjoyed that film).

In other words this is very much horror-suspense of the moment, following a new wave of subtle shockers that includes all of the above plus A Stir of Echoes, Session 9, The Others, and The Blair Witch Project, movies in which what you hear and what you don't see are often more important than what's actually onscreen. Tom Cruise has purchased the U.S. remake rights to The Eye, and we can undoubtedly expect a future Scary Movie sequel to reference that. In the meantime, you can get the jump on the masses and be able to brag about having seen the original.

"Original" being a relative term in a movie about a woman who ... wait for it ... sees dead people, possibly thanks to the influence of a scary dead kid (audiences in the Far East seem to have a real phobia of little girls). Anyway our heroine Mun (Lee Sin-Je, a popular singer in Taiwan since her teens) has been blind since early childhood, but has recently gained the ability to see via a new state-of-the-art cornea transplant.

As her new eyes start to focus, she sees blurry shapes that don't seem to actually be there. It could just be a trick of the light, but then late one evening in the hospital, she awakens to a sound reminiscent of Bob Dylan with a sinus problem (eye transplants apparently affect one's hearing as well, in this case), and encounters a scary old lady who disappears. And it's no simple disappearance -- a fuzzy image vaguely resembling a translucent man in a black turtleneck shows up to lead the elderly dame through the wall. The next morning, naturally, we learn that the female patient in a neighboring bed has died during the night.

Old ladies can only be so scary, however. Unfortunately for Mun, there's more. A young boy who committed suicide keeps hanging around demanding his report card. An accident victim walks right through her. A particularly pissed-off spirit leaps through her and knocks her out. Then there's the problem of her bedroom, which keeps morphing into another room altogether, one she's never seen, complete with the shadow of a rocking chair in motion in the middle of the floor. Why ... it's enough to make a woman fling herself into the arms of an extremely young and handsome therapist (Lawrence Chou)! Chou's also a Taiwanese pop sensation; here's hoping Tom Cruise doesn't go a similar route in casting his version.

Similar to Ringu/The Ring, this relatively chaste couple goes about figuring out exactly where the offending eyes came from, and why they have such a problematic supernatural defect. Along the way, more spooky visions show up, usually cued by obvious scary music that tells you exactly when. Later in the film, one or two scares happen without foreshadowing, but not many. The Pang Brothers, who've never made a horror film before, seemingly want to stick to the tried and true.

And let's be honest -- it works. It'll take a hardy soul to not quiver even once during the movie. Formula can indeed be effective, and maybe if you've never seen a Hideo Nakata film, The Eye will even come off as original. Nakata's Dark Water is also set to be remade stateside -- whichever one is done first gets bragging rights. Meanwhile fright fans could do a lot worse than The Eye; the Pangs have talent, but when they realize that a film isn't the same thing as a feature-length commercial, perhaps they'll provide us with some more-original visions.

Usually Sebastian Ordoñez is a racecar driver only when he's pushing toy cars across his bedroom floor. The eight-year-old will sputter engine noises between his lips as he maneuvers imaginary Formula One racetracks all over the globe. "In like Brazil, Australia, lots of places," he says. He'll be a star someday of the Indy cars and Formula Ones and NASCAR, he says in the unshakably confident way kids talk about their dreams.

But on this day, a scorching Saturday afternoon at a racetrack in Jacksonville, his fantasy is real. His racecar is a supercharged go-cart, and he's up against kids from all over the state who are living the same dream. They all know him. Sebastian, he's the fast one. He doesn't talk or smile much, but on the racetrack, he flies. He's only eight, but he's the one people point to when asked who might be a pro one day.

The racers wear long-sleeved, padded jackets and pants and airbrushed helmets they'll grow out of in a year or two. Under them are go-carts that look not much different in size and shape from the ones for rent at putt-putt-golf places. But these go-carts rumble like a pack of motorcycles revving at a stoplight and fill the air with the metallic odor of high-octane fuel exhaust. Their parents shelled out as much as $10,000 to outfit the go-carts, and they can spend five times that every year sending them to races across the country.

On signal, a dozen drivers, all from eight to twelve years old, leave the warm-up area next to the speedway and head for the starting line on the opposite side of the track. There they'll line up in order. Spencer Pigot, a nine-year-old from Orlando with straw-colored hair and blue eyes, took first in the qualifying; he gets the prime spot at the head of the pack. Sebastian took a respectable second. He has a game plan ready that stresses patience uncommon for a kid his age: He'll trail close behind while hitting speeds over 60 mph, waiting for his time to make a move to the outside. If the leader drives perfectly, Sebastian may wait until the last turn to make his move.

A few carts behind Sebastian is Court Vernon. Like Sebastian, his father drove him from Miami for the race. Court didn't do so well in the qualifying, so his place is next-to-last. He knows Sebastian is faster, but Court also has a strategy. He's eleven years old and, like the older drivers, more aggressive. "If they're really slow, you can bump them like that," he explains before the race, knocking one of his small hands into the other to illustrate. "It's not legal, but they usually don't say anything." It might sound malicious to a novice, but Court and the others have learned it from their heroes by watching races on TV. Most consider it just an advanced tactic every driver uses. He employs this risky strategy even though collisions during races have nearly killed both Court and Sebastian since they began racing last fall. It's all in the game, he says. Every newcomer will quickly learn, Court says, that you're better off being the one who causes the collision on a racetrack: "You know it's coming, and you can react."

Every year, go-cart crashes kill an average of nineteen people, six of them adults, and injure 10,500 more. Accidents are likely to multiply in a sport that is growing in spurts, particularly in Florida. The number of adults and kids joining the sport, which some participants say has doubled in the past decade, is helping turn go-cart racing into a costly and sometimes deadly substitute for Little League.

The carts rumble onto the Jacksonville course and past the only crowd at such races, a swarm of dads gathered at the warm-up area. But as soon as the racers turn onto the track, Court's go-cart sounds like a lawnmower that won't turn over. The rolling-pin-sized muffler behind his seat spits and pops each time he pushes the gas pedal. Finally the go-cart stalls and rolls to a stop in the middle of the track. Court waves his right hand toward the warm-up area to beckon mechanic Carlos Clemente. Like most of the parents, Court's father hires a pit crew to work on the go-carts before and during races.

"My carburetor!" Court yells, tears already running down his cheeks. "It's broken!"

"Calm down," says Clemente, a former big-rig mechanic who now works full time repairing go-carts. "We'll get you going."

As Court's go-cart sputters forward again, the pack of racers arrives at the starting line. By rule, any driver who fails to pull up to the starting grid in time gets an extra two laps to warm up. This is, after all, a friendly race among kids. On the first lap, Court's cart limps along and barely makes it around without quitting. But on the second, the carburetor seems to have fixed itself. Since it's still sputtering, though, race officials give him one more lap. He zooms through the banked turns and speeds into the straightaway at full throttle before joining the rest of the drivers. [page]

Now Court's engine problems seem to have helped him. The extra laps allowed his engine to heat up, and his slick racing tires have expanded with friction, giving him better traction. Sebastian and the others won't get peak performance out of their carts for at least a lap or two. Back in the warm-up area, the fathers are fuming over Court's new advantage. It's not uncommon to see the bunch divide against one another, accusing a rival kid of cheating. This isn't a team sport, and each dad has only one racer he wants to see finish first. Spencer's father, a bespectacled furniture-store owner named Barry, is shaking his right fist at the track. "This isn't right," he yells. "He got to warm up!"

As the starting flag comes down, Court makes a move for the outside.


Sebastian's introduction to racing was watching his dad wreck a few go-carts. Mauricio Ordoñez, a mortgage broker, wasn't much good at racing but was pretty good at crashing. "I raced just for fun," Mauricio says. "I tried it a couple of times and wasn't that good at it, to be honest. But my son ... my son is very good."

Even with that history, Mauricio says he lets his son race for one simple reason: Sebastian has tremendous potential. Last year, when Sebastian was seven years old and too young for midsized carts raced by kids at least a year older, Mauricio bought him a "baby cart." It's about the size of a beach chair but still whips around the track at 25 mph. Sebastian quickly won nearly every race he entered. Mauricio rewarded his victories with two brand-new midsized go-carts. Sebastian became one of the fastest drivers in the state for his age group. But there's a note of caution to his style, perhaps because of the memory of his dad's accidents. "He hurt his leg, his elbow, his neck," the boy says while pointing to the body parts. "He flipped too much."

Court's father says he tried for years to keep his son off the racetrack. He enrolled him in baseball and soccer, but Court always talked about racing. After all, it's in his genes. Court, whose full name is Harcourt Vernon IV, is a third-generation racecar driver. His father and namesake raced as an amateur when he was younger, before he owned Capt. Harry's Fishing Supply shop in Miami. And his grandfather, Court II, raced stock cars professionally. "He threw a fit one day," the elder Court says of his son. "He said, 'Dad, I'm a racecar driver. I don't want to play these other sports.' What was I going to do? I figured it was in his blood." He bought his son a go-cart for his birthday and then another a month later for Christmas. The kid with dirty blond hair and blue braces was hooked.

Court and Sebastian now spend two or three nights a week practicing their driving skills at a little-known speedway called Mega Racing. Hundreds of drivers from West Palm Beach to the Keys train there regularly on a makeshift track that meanders through a corner of a parking lot at the Opa-locka-Hialeah Flea Market. There's another track in the parking lot of the Homestead Speedway and plans to open a third at Moroso Motorsports Park in Jupiter next year. There are another dozen tracks across Florida, a state with more go-cart racers than any other. An influx of drivers from South America, where the sport is more mainstream, has helped create a network of several hundred Florida drivers.

Go-carting has been around for at least two decades, but its revival came about five years ago with the introduction of a superfast type of cart. The new machines, raced only by adults, use a six-speed transmission, allowing them to hit top speeds of 130 mph by changing gears with a stick shift to the right of the steering wheel. The "shifter" carts, as they're called, burst to a start faster than any street-legal sports car, reaching 60 mph in three seconds. With that kind of acceleration, go-carts are said to have the same g-forces as a descending Six Flags roller coaster or a jet plane angling skyward. The racers feel it smashing their faces flat and slamming their bodies against the seats.

The most common time to find racers in Opa-locka is Wednesday night, when go-carts fill the parking lot of an industrial park adjacent to Mega Racing. Go-cart salesmen hawk everything from a beginner model at a couple thousand dollars to tricked-out versions that cost five figures. Shops lining the park sell sets of tires for $150 and offer pit services complete with back-up parts and teams of mechanics. Among the companies is Advanced Karting, which contracted with racecar driver Christian Fittipaldi to use his famous name on its equipment. Court, Sebastian, and a third South Florida racer, ten-year-old Jarvis Gennari of Boca Raton, use the Fittipaldi pit crew. [page]

Mauricio says he'll spend somewhere around $50,000 on his son's hobby this year. Of that, he pays the Fittipaldi crew $200 a day for the races, plus their travel expenses and transportation of the carts and equipment. In that time, Sebastian will enter perhaps 50 races, including dozens on a national circuit that could take him outside the state at least once a month.

Mauricio figures it's a gamble on his kid's future. If it works, Sebastian will repay his father someday with his winnings as a pro. Wayne Vensel, a Miami architect who organizes the statewide races for the Florida Championship Series, says every kid dreams of racing in the big leagues. For most, they're only dreams. "Most kids know there's a slim chance of being a quarterback in the NFL," Vensel says. "But the reality is, you've got an even slimmer chance making it to the top level of racing."


Court took his birthday present out for the first time in Opa-locka, zooming around corners marked by old tires. On his first run, he misjudged a corner, failed to brake in time, and went headfirst into the tires. "So Mom wasn't really happy at all," his dad recalls. Court walked away from that one, but things got worse.

In January Court enrolled in his first race at a speedway in Daytona Beach, driving alongside Sebastian, who had already raced a half-dozen times. A few laps into the race, another driver stopped quickly in front of Court. He slammed on his brakes, but the driver behind him didn't react quickly enough. None of the go-carts has brake lights, and even the young drivers draft off one another by staying within inches of the cart in front. The cart behind Court slammed into his rear bumper. The force sent the trailing cart skyward, and its front bumper violently smacked Court in the back of the head. As Sebastian and the others passed him slowly with the yellow caution flag flying, Court sat motionless on the track.

Although record-keeping is sporadic, the most thorough study involving the sport was conducted in 1998 by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. Investigators found that 231 people died on go-carts in twelve years starting in 1985, including 158 kids under sixteen years old. And children made up 65 percent of the 125,000 injuries during that time. Still the report counted go-cart accidents on roads and in back yards and didn't specify how many happened on racetracks. The report looked into the deaths of 45 children. Of those, only three, an average of about one child a year, died on commercial speedways.

Race officials acknowledge that the sport is dangerous, and the type of go-cart raced on most tracks lacks safety equipment like seat belts, airbags, or roll cages. The reason is simple: Drivers contend that they're better off not strapped into a cart when it flips. New drivers are taught instead to push themselves away from the cart if they roll over. The padded neck brace and helmets they wear will help stave off paralysis, and the full-body race suits will lessen road burns as they skid down the track. The real danger when they come free of the carts, however, is becoming a human missile or a speed bump.

At the crash in Daytona, rescue workers pulled Court from his go-cart and brought him to Halifax Medical Center. He spent the night in the intensive-care ward with a severe concussion, and doctors ordered him to stay off the track for two months. "I couldn't keep him off," his father confesses. "He was back out three weeks later."

The elder Court says he is asked frequently why he lets his son race. He has tried to restrain his son, he says, taking the go-cart away for a week when the boy got a D in math. The kid moped around, Court III says. Racing isn't so bad when you compare it with other sports, he says. "Look, every sport is dangerous. In soccer, there were kids who had broken legs, and kids in baseball are getting pegged in the head. One guy on Court's [baseball] team has his teeth knocked out." [page]

The Daytona race in which Court crashed was the last for Court's mother, as well as Sebastian's. Like most moms, Pilar Ordoñez now stays home. She'll take a peek sometimes at Opa-locka, only because she has to bring her son after school. But not at competitive events. "I can't watch it," she says one night on an empty bandstand next to the track. "I can't watch him crash again."

As for the kids, they say they don't think much about the crashes. Most appear to possess a fearlessness on the racetrack that makes them both more competitive and more dangerous. The laid-back Sebastian explains it by blinking his eyes quickly. "When you do like that," he says, "it's already over, and you don't feel anything. It's after that you feel it."


Before the race in Jacksonville, a grass field near the track quickly fills with rows of travel trailers stocked with go-carts. Mechanics hired by adult racers or parents of young ones work to rebuild engines blown during test heats or to replace tires that sometimes last no more than one race. It's easy to spot the Fittipaldi trailer. It's cherry red and one of the biggest. After running a half-dozen laps of practice and a few more just to qualify for the race, Court, Sebastian, and Jarvis head back to the air-conditioned trailer. Their faces are flushed from reaching a point of heat exhaustion wearing the thick race suits in the sun. A boy from another race team follows them in, obviously envious of the only air-conditioned spot on a day when the heat index is well over 100 degrees.

"I got a 38," the newcomer brags of his lap time in qualifying. Each driver must complete a qualifying heat, and those with the best times get a better starting position in the race.

"I got a 37," Jarvis says. He's been racing since last April and has his own Website,, but Sebastian still regularly beats him.

"The record is a 40," Court adds.

Sebastian, in his typical mild-mannered style, doesn't join in the fibbing. "I got a 42."

"Yeah, so did I," Jarvis confesses.

The four still wear their race suits, despite the way the padded material holds in the heat. None of them wants to remove these symbols of being a racecar driver.

Court whispers something in Sebastian's ear, pointing at the new kid. He repeats his secret to Jarvis. "I've got a fart bomb. Let's explode it on him."

The new kid tries to change the subject and points at Sebastian, saying, "He doesn't talk much." Sebastian just raises his shoulders.

"You're a piece of crap," Court tells the new kid, who's about to respond when Court's dad enters the kitchen.

"He's using curse words," the new kid reports, pointing at Court.

"He better not be," the father says sternly. He orders the boys to each eat a banana. Lunch would be too much and probably make them throw up. Adrenaline and a full belly of food don't mix. "A banana keeps their energy up," he explains.

With Dad in the room, the boys jump into the raised section at the front of the trailer, tumbling into a pile. "Hey, no wrestling," Court III scolds. "We don't want any injuries before the race."

While Sebastian is one of the fastest on the racetrack, his age makes him the smallest in the wrestling pile. He weighs just 50 pounds, and the races require all go-carts, including their drivers, to weigh 200 pounds. Mechanics strap a few weights even on Court's cart to make sure he weighs enough, but Sebastian's cart has weights strapped on the back of the seat and on the steering column. They even put extra gas in the tank that sits between his legs to add weight. Mechanics had to replace Sebastian's standard seat with one removed from his smaller "baby cart," which is built for kids as young as four. If he doesn't fit snugly, he could end up with broken bones. The force from the quick turns taken in go-carts often cracks drivers' ribs.

The elder Court concedes that his boy did poorly in qualifying. The official times haven't been announced, but every cart has a computer on board that keeps track of the lap times. After qualifying, the mechanics have found a glitch in the carburetor of Court's cart and believe it's pumping too much fuel. "It drives me nuts," Court III says. "We go through all this, all this practicing, then to end up with a terrible time." For every race, the kids get points for where they finish, and the points are tallied at the end of the year. Sebastian so far is in second, and Court is not far behind, third out of a pack of about a hundred. "He's third in points, and now he's going to drop down again. We'll just have to make up for it with a win later on." [page]

It's troubling too for the elder Court that there's only so much he can do. He counsels his son before the race, but at the starting line or during pit stops, he knows he has to back off. "He'll listen to the mechanics or the other guys," Dad says, "but he just gets frustrated with me."

The Jacksonville track, built by the city about three decades ago, is famous among go-cart drivers for being one of the country's fastest. The track's corners are banked like the ones in NASCAR. The angled turns allow racers to keep their speed up around the corners before hitting the 1000-foot straightaway on a track that's six-tenths of a mile long. Those who qualify behind will have to go into the turns at high speeds to pass on the outside. Passing is the most dangerous part, though. That's when collisions and spinouts happen. Racers follow a line drawn on the track by rubber left behind by other racers. It gives the go-carts better traction and is the quickest way to the next turn. There's less rubber burned on the straightaways, so racers have to picture the line. "A line is like an imaginary track," the younger Court explains, with an impressive grasp of the technical aspects of his sport. "You make it up in your head, and you follow it, because you want to win. If you get outside the black rubber line, the tires will slide and you scrub off speed."

When the official qualifying times are finally announced, the boys spill out of the trailer for some counseling with the dads. Sebastian had raced better than he thought, with a 39.65-second lap, just six-hundredths of a second behind the kid from Orlando. With that time, he averaged 54 mph during qualifying. Sebastian gets a high-five from his dad, who immediately calls Mom with the news. He's already thinking about what's next, a national race in Illinois this month. After that, Mauricio says, he'll start looking for sponsors to help pay expenses. It's rare for kid racers to get sponsors, but occasionally they may help pay travel expenses for an advertisement on the cart or on the race suits. Mauricio thinks the sponsors will see that his son has a future. "I'm just going to talk to people and say, 'Hey, do you know someone who wants to sponsor my son for, say, $500?'" he says. "I'm going to get a portfolio together with all his wins and photos. It's going to be impressive."

Court, meanwhile, looks near tears as his father bends down over him next to the go-cart. Dad is wearing a T-shirt from his tackle shop and sunglasses on a string. They both have the same hairstyle, although the younger Court's is slightly lighter. "You'll just have to make up for it later on, okay?" Dad consoles.


"You know you're better than this, right?"



Finally, the main event for these youngsters. The race in Jacksonville begins with Court quickly taking advantage of his heated tires, which expanded during his extra warm-up laps while his carburetor worked out its kinks. On the first turn, he cuts in front of one cart and then another. His carburetor is now running perfectly. As the drivers enter the long straightaway on the back side, Court passes another kid. He's now just four carts behind Sebastian and moving up fast.

Even with professional drivers, go-cart racing has not yet become a spectator sport. But the races have the same thrills as the ones driven by pros. Like their elders, the kids employ advanced driving skills to draft inches from the go-cart in front of them and pull off dangerous passes that risk their lives. The only significant audience, the dads, cheer and bellow as if their kids have just won the Le Mans. Many wear T-shirts printed with a racecar-driver hero or polo shirts embroidered with the name of the pit crew they've hired for their sons. They're in their thirties or forties and clearly well-off -- able to spend tens of thousands of dollars on their sons' pastime. They talk about the sport as if it were their own and speak with lust about the intoxicating fumes, the deafening howl of passing carts, and the excitement and heartbreak at the end of the race. "Can you smell that?" Court's father asks while breathing in deeply from beside the track. "God, that's racing fumes." [page]

With Court coming up behind him, Sebastian excels. In contrast to his jittery demeanor before the race, he stays calm, blocking out anything but the track. "It's really exciting," he says. "It feels like you're going to lose. But when you get on the track you don't think about anything else. I don't think again until it's over." In the fifth lap, Sebastian uses his momentum from the s-curve and cuts to his right. He angles around Spencer, the kid from Orlando, and into first. Mauricio bites his nails as he watches the action and makes a fist as he sees his son take the lead. He's standing in a pack of dads who cluster under an overhang in the warm-up area, cheering over the growl of the passing go-carts. With Sebastian now in the lead and Spencer close behind, Court continues his ascent by passing Jarvis and another driver. He's now in third, right behind Spencer.

On the straightaway, Sebastian can almost feel the carts behind him like a breath on the back of his neck. They're following inches from one another's bumpers, waiting for a chance to pass on the outside. Sebastian cuts to his left to stop Spencer from passing and then again to his right. In race terms, it's called a "zig and a zag," and it's an illegal maneuver. Racers can cut off a driver in only one direction. Spencer's father, Barry, a former Formula One driver himself, explodes. He was already fired up over Court's extra warm-up. "He can't do that! He just zigged and zagged!"

As it turns out, the move doesn't matter. Sebastian slows too much, and he watches Spencer go by, back into first place, with Court close behind in third. Sebastian quickly realizes what went wrong; his father has been telling him for months to drive more forcefully. Zooming into the turns at full speed while hitting the brake at the last second is scary, Sebastian explains, but fighting among a pack of racers unafraid of slamming into one another is worse. This is where his skills as a driver fail him and fear takes over. "I have to be more aggressive," Sebastian confesses later in a rare moment of candor about the dangers he faces. "I have to pass without being afraid."

In the sixth lap, with just two to go, Court makes a move. Sebastian hugs the inside of the s-curve just before the straightaway, and Court takes the dangerous angle to the outside, where there's less rubber on the road, where a driver can spin out or, worse, flip. There are no stacks of old tires or protective walls on the Jacksonville course. If he fails to judge the turn, Court could end up rocketed into a chainlink fence. Court hits the gas and angles around Sebastian as they hit the straightaway. Again Sebastian fails to take an aggressive stance by cutting in front of Court, who speeds by in the straightaway. And with Sebastian's failure, Court didn't need the bump-and-pass strategy after all. His heated engine and warmed-up tires gave him that much of an edge.

In the final lap, just over three minutes after the race began, Court has one last chance to seize first from Spencer. They enter the s-curve, and Court cuts up slightly to his right. Spencer is ready, and his cart stays solidly in the center of the track. They enter the straightaway, the g-forces pushing them backward, steering wheels shaking, and the impossible come-from-behind finish remains just out of reach. Court takes second, followed by Sebastian in third and Jarvis in fifth.

In the pit, Sebastian leaves his cart with the mechanics. His dad gets on the cell phone to tell Mom about the results, and more important, that their son is in one piece. Sebastian undoes his racing jacket and lets it hang down on his waist. A third-place finish behind him, he walks back to the trailer alone.

Court III greets his son with the hearty laugh a proud father bestows on a successful son. "Hey, great job, sport!"

"Yeah, I knew I could do it." Court's smiling so wide he's showing a mouthful of blue braces. He didn't win, but Court proved his skill by moving up from nearly last to second. The two of them push the cart together toward the trailer. "Oh man, I thought I could take it."

"That's okay," Dad says. "You did great."

Court and Sebastian head back to the trailer, their faces flushed from the heat and the adrenaline. Their red and black race suits stained from exhaust and road dirt, they settle in behind the trailer's kitchen table. Someday, maybe, paparazzi and fans and champagne will be waiting for the famous Formula One champions after a race. For now, Court and Sebastian celebrate with a couple of cherry snow cones. [page]

There are many local restaurants that are enjoyable because they are so typical of what Miami now is and does best: perfectly put-together upscale glamour.

And then there are restaurants that are enjoyable because they are atypical of what Miami now is, but shining examples of what we could be, given our population-from-everywhere (including, I suspect, outer space), kick-off-yer-shoes climate and other natural resources. In other words eating and entertainment spots that are truly international and interracial in both clientele and cuisine, fun-in-the-sun funky, and high in risk-taking, casually kamikaze culinary (and musical) creativity, low in velvet-rope attitude.

Due to, among other factors, real estate prices that do not encourage risk-taking, the latter category of restaurant is virtually an endangered species. But One Ninety is one that's alive and thriving.

Actually One Ninety is so thriving that locals are already worrying about the barely six-month-old joint, located on the bottom floor of a two-family apartment building in Buena Vista East -- a cute and increasingly hip but definitely nonglam, rough-edged residential area just north of the Design District -- becoming overtaken by the Terminally Trendy. On several recent weekend nights, out-of-towners from New York and L.A. have been spotted, and, talk about ruining the neighborhood, even some South Beach scenesters have ventured across the causeway to scope out what all the word-of-mouth buzz is about.

What One Ninety feels like is a counterculture hangout more than a formal restaurant, sort of a new-millennium update of the 1960s legendary Alice's Restaurant, in which Alice has evolved beyond the culinary concept that sour cream improves everything. At One Ninety the chef seems to feel that fresh rosemary improves almost everything, and many dishes I tried also demonstrated overenthusiasm for salt, but the food in general was impressive -- always unusually creative in concept, just not always perfectly executed. Rough edges extended beyond the food. Service on one visit, for instance, was ideal for the place, casual but completely competent, while on another occasion every dish that everyone at my table ordered -- all starters, all entrées, even dessert -- arrived at once. This was certainly a creative interpretation of my request that our server space items as she thought best.

Entertainment's also a mixed bag; the talented son/balsero singer Roberto Povedo plays One Ninety on Saturdays, but so does the ensemble I encountered on one visit, whose ear-wrenching sound would have greatly benefited from even a very inexpensive electronic tuner. Still it seemed charming that a venue would take a chance on such an iffy band; it sure would never happen in the home of perfect plastic electronica across the bay. And some of One Ninety's artistic risk-taking pays off terrifically, like the festive décor in the ladies loo, where the imagination extends even to tiny details like the nails driven through decorative beer caps holding up the mirror over the sink.

Getting down to dinner dishes (in no particular order, since they came in none): Seared foie gras for a mere nine bucks? Impossible but true, and tasty, too. The small bits of buttery rare sautéed duck liver came on slices of brioche, flanked by sweet and tart lady apples and drizzled with port wine concentrate.

Diced salmon tartare was more pedestrian, pretty much the standard preparation found in a zillion Miami restaurants except for two notable factors: less sesame oil overload than usual, and at $6, considerably less cost.

My dining companions all found cod cakes too salty, but they clearly had expected the cakes to be made from fresh fish rather than reconstituted salt cod; if one was expecting brandade, the patties were tasty, and the lemony (though not at all garlicky) aioli was an effective counterpoint. Fresh tuna slices on sunflower sprouts were fresh and properly bleu, but the chili-lime dressing was disappointing, much blander than its name would suggest.

Delicate, almost translucently thin, pasta layers and a simple but effective butter/sage sauce would have made homemade ricotta and walnut agnolotti a winner had the pasta not been overdone to mushiness. Also on the pasta list, risotto with pancetta, shrimp, shallots, and fresh oregano was tasty though somewhat overwhelmed by salt and oregano overdosing; the dish was more like a Spanish rice than a risotto, since the soft-cooked grains were individual, with none of risotto's characteristic creamy texture.

A rather spartan steak frites would have benefited from even a drizzle of classic peppercorn sauce, but came perfectly bleu as ordered, with enough crisp shoestring fries to feed the whole table.

Eccentricity truly pays off in the dessert list. Those who want to play it safe (except with their cholesterol count) can opt for a flourless chocolate cake as heavy as always, but it's worth taking a chance on aged goat cheesecake with pears and red wine, a brilliantly humorous take on the ages-old wine/cheese/fruit pairing. And the chef's version of white chocolate mousse transforms a generally cloying dessert into a dish with character, with the contrasting elements of black pepper and an industrial-strength sweet-tart orange sauce.

Although One Ninety isn't open for lunch, it does do an extended all-afternoon Sunday brunch -- which is unimpeachable. In fact given the tiny tab ($15), the spread is downright unbelievable. Seat yourself at a table (the outdoor ones particularly conducive to conversation, but muted DJ'd jazz and gospel music make indoors easy on the ears during brunchtime, too), and servers will bring you a choice of fresh-squeezed orange or grapefruit juice plus any or all of half-a-dozen menu items: steak and eggs; fluffy pancakes or French toast with strawberries, blueberries, or bananas; eggs Benedict with either traditional ham or perfect barely steamed fresh spinach; huevos rancheros -- sunnyside-up eggs on crisp custom-fried tortillas, with an only slightly spicy but garden-fresh tomato salsa; and a variety of omelets. You can also order a number of sides, the usuals like bacon and home fries as well as welcome oddities like fried green tomatoes and cheese grits.

But you're far from finished. Inside is a help-yourself coffee bar (good full-bodied brew, too), and a groaning buffet table packed with dozens of delectable dishes; nothing I tried was less than wonderful, and some items were even better. Among the many items I couldn't resist sampling were a fabulously smooth, light carrot mousse; a buttery-crusted herbed artichoke/crème fraîche tart; more classic broccoli quiche; two fresh pasta salads; platters of various grilled or sautéed fresh vegetables; a refreshing tomato, onion, and grain salad; a dill-sprinkled fresh beet salad with Roquefort; savory chicken salad; even tastier Southern-fried chicken; ribs that quite understandably disappeared seconds after the platter was put down; and some pastries and desserts that'll make you wish that humans, like cows, had two stomachs: notably a rich crumb cake with fresh berries, a nut tart similar to pecan pie but with a much less sweet filler and many more nuts, and a flan so deliciously creamy that I cannot imagine why I am helping to ruin the establishment that produced it.

Therefore, in conclusion: There are many personally friendly, and purse-friendly, fun little neighborhood restaurant finds in N.Y.C. and L.A. Please patronize them, and leave One Ninety to us locals who've been starved for such sustenance.

Where do ideas for musicals come from? Time was, most of them were adaptations of plays or books (My Fair Lady, Guys & Dolls, South Pacific). Nowadays, though, inspiration for shows comes from all sorts of sources. Take, for example, Bat Boy: The Musical, which began as a "real life" story in the pages of a supermarket tabloid about a batlike boy discovered in a subterranean cave in the hills of West Virginia. The tabloid source immediately establishes a style for the show: Like tabloids and their sports counterpart, professional wrestling, Bat Boy can be appreciated as a deadpan serious melodrama or as an artful sendup. This camp sensibility seems a nice fit for Rich Simone and his Shores Performing Arts Theater, which is presenting the South Florida premiere of the New York hit. The tale of a sad loner persecuted by small-town prejudice has a loopy, off-kilter charm that suits both Simone's company and its cavernous space, a dilapidated former movie theater that itself has a batcave quality.

Though the musical's tone is dry and droll, its story by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming has some weight. It begins when three small-town teens are exploring some subterranean caves. They encounter a naked boy with large batlike ears and needle-sharp teeth. The savage "Bat Boy" can't speak or communicate, and when he feels threatened, he attacks and bites one of the teens. He's subdued and hauled to the sheriff, who faces strong public pressure to kill him. The sheriff balks but, fearing political punishment in his upcoming reelection campaign, passes him over to the town vet, Dr. Thomas Parker. Parker's wife, Meredith, takes a shine to the frightened Bat Boy and cares for him, naming him Edgar. Their teen daughter, Shelley, is disgusted by Edgar at first, but as Meredith teaches him speech and manners, she grows more and more fond of him. Meanwhile, though, the town wants him destroyed, and the community lurches toward a crisis.

This story has all sorts of points to make about societal prejudice, and the plot has several surprising dramatic turns. But the show's light, wry style flickers from a serious perspective one moment to parody the next. Laurence O'Keefe's music isn't notable, except in its borrowings from other shows, but his inventive lyrics manage to sound silly and smart at the same time: "A boy of his complexion's gonna meet with some objections." Much of the music references classic shows, and the high melodrama often teeters in camp. But both parody and camp are best played straight, or at least poker-faced. The fun comes when the audience realizes the humor beneath the seriousness. The fun leaves again when the performers call attention to the humor and don't take the seriousness seriously. The Shores company has learned this lesson indifferently. When E.L. Losada takes the stage as Bat Boy, the show works. His pointy ears and vampire teeth help his character, but it's the invisible details that really define this characterization. When Meredith approaches his cage with a bowl of food, Bat Boy struggles with what this means. A threat? A gift? You can see Edgar's inner wheels turning, even if he can only grunt and yowl. Later, when Meredith teaches Edgar English, the words are mere sounds to him until the light goes on in his head and he connects the sounds to meaning.

Losada, who has been working out his acting chops on Shakespeare and O'Neill at the New Theatre, brings a full commitment to a role that's completely absorbing. The same goes for Stacy Schwartz as Meredith. Both find a range of emotions and contradictions that keep their characters alive. As Meredith's brooding husband, Thomas, Mark Filosa also offers complexity, though as the story progresses, many of his scenes are staged as flat melodramatic villainy. The rest of the ensemble offers little substance, with some performers turning in a range of obvious, tedious caricatures that seem more appropriate to a high school skit than a witty grand guignol.

The problem lies not in a lack of talent -- there's plenty of that in evidence -- nor in a lack of resources -- the Shores crew has never been fazed by limited circumstances. It's more a lack of precision and focus. Simone, the Shores' multitalented artistic director/producer, is seriously overextended here. Besides running the theatre, Simone hired himself as show director, actor, set designer, and lighting designer, but little of this work is up to his usual standard. His staging is often inventive, but too many scenes seem sketchy, with the story and character beats indistinct and the primary relationships unexplored. The show suffers from problems with the music: The offstage four-piece band sounds muddy, and a lot of the lyrics get lost in the big musical numbers. Simone's set design, a black-on-black wall with a second-level platform and a recessed screened inner stage, is functional but lifeless, a decided letdown after his dazzling set work for GableStage's The Goat or Who is Sylvia? The lighting design is equally uninspired. This Bat Boy might have had more bite had Simone not bitten off more than he could chew.


•Annie: The spunky orphan is back, 8:00 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, beginning Wednesday, November 19, through January 4. The Actors' Playhouse at Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-444-9293.

•Antonio: EDGE Theatre explores friendship, mating rituals, and love triangles in its latest production, 8:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through December 20, 305-531-6083 (details). Piccadilly Gardens, 35 NE 40th St.

•As You Like It: Love, trickery, and mischief reign in the magical Forest of Arden in this romantic comedy by William Shakespeare, 8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through November 23. FIU University Park Campus, Wertheim Performing Arts Center, 11200 SW 8th St.; 305-348-3789.

•Rum & Coke: Miami-born Cuban-American actress and playwright Carmen Pelaez interprets a host of female characters inspired by her experiences in this one-woman show, call for showtimes, Tuesday, November 18, through January 25. Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove; 305-442-4000.

•The Boys of Mariel: This dark comedy by Bill Yule and Barry Ball explores the lives of six Cuban men who, after spending time in Castro's jails, arrive in Miami on the Mariel boatlift, 8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7:00 p.m. Sundays, through November 30, 305-609-4763 (details). Teatro Avante, 235 Alcazar Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-8877.

•The Goat or Who is Sylvia? A successful architect must confess to his wife about an extramarital relationship in this Edward Albee drama, 8:00 p.m. Thursday, November 13, through Saturday, November 15; 2:00 and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, November 16. GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119.

•The Piano Lesson: In August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, an African-American family is disrupted when a relative decides he wants to sell their prized antique piano to buy land in Mississippi that the family had once worked as slaves, 8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3:00 p.m. Sundays, through December 14. M Ensemble Actors Studio, 12320 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami; 305-895-8955.

•Times Like These: This drama is based on the true story of the marriage between two Nazi-era German stage stars, Meta Wolff and Joachim Gottschalk, 8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:00 and 7:00 p.m. Sundays, through December 14. New Theatre, 4120 Laguna St., Coral Gables; 305-443-5909.

•Violet: A severely disfigured woman named Violet embarks on a bus journey across the South in search of a TV evangelist in this musical, call for showtimes, through November 22. UM Ring Theatre, 1312 Miller Dr., Coral Gables; 305-284-3355.

There's something to be said for a movie that's honest enough to transcribe dialogue that must have emanated from the director's mouth, and make it part of the script. "Everybody start shooting at somebody!" yells Det. Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) in the midst of a particular situation. Earlier, he gives the command to "drive that ambulance into the building!" Fellini it ain't. Hell, James Ellroy it ain't. But this is, after all, a Michael Bay film. What did you expect?

Bad Boys II, the not-especially-awaited sequel to Bay's 1995 feature debut, is not going to win him or producer Jerry Bruckheimer many points with critics, not that either man could do so if he tried. It may, however, win points with the moviegoing public, or more particularly those who've become very disillusioned with Bay following his craptacular previous two films (Armageddon and Pearl Harbor), which featured PG-13 ratings and Ben Affleck at his very worst, which is saying a lot. Those who prefer their movies with nuance and levels of meaning may not appreciate this, but action movie fans know that there was a big difference between the unrestrained over-the-top Bay-Bruckheimer collaborations (Bad Boys, The Rock) and the pandering teenybopper Affleck vehicles. Let Bay go over the top, and he rocks. Rein him in, and you might manage a good opening weekend, but not a great deal more.

In general, Bad Boys II is Bay unleashed. This is a good thing when it comes to action sequences -- fans of excessive spectacle will definitely dig the car chases that involve flying cadavers. It's a bit less of a good thing between said moments of spectacle, as Bay (who cameos onscreen as "Crappy Car Driver") seems determined to prove that he can pull off the quiet moments as well. Nothing wrong with that, in theory: "Cool down" scenes, if done right, help to pace an action movie and make the next chase all the more heart-pumping. But the key is "if done right"; Bad Boys II runs almost two and a half hours, and a lot of it feels like filler.

In the eight years since the first Bad Boys, little has changed plotwise, except that Téa Leoni has mercifully disappeared, to be replaced by Gabrielle Union. Joe Pantoliano is still the exasperated Miami police chief who stresses out when his top cops blow shit up while managing to let every shred of evidence either evaporate or get pilfered at the last minute, and Theresa Randle's still around as Martin Lawrence's wife, only the actress's once-hot career seems to have dried up, so no one in the audience remembers who she is anymore. Real-life events in the careers of Smith and Lawrence, however, have given their roles a level of irony that was likely not intended -- having Smith play the brash playboy who waves guns around and Lawrence as the responsible family man now feels like a deliberately perverse joke.

It's good to see Lawrence back together with Smith, and not only because Lawrence has made some godawful movies in the last few years: Pairing him with a nonwhite partner means that Lawrence doesn't get to fall back on his tired "keeping the black man down" shtick, which felt phony coming from a $20 million-paycheck performer anyhow. As for Smith, he never lost his charisma, but he did lose audience goodwill with the (somewhat unfairly) maligned Wild Wild West and MIIB: Men in Black II, in part because of the annoying tie-in rap videos he made for both films. Here, the music is left to composer Trevor Rabin and Dr. Dre, who literally do a bang-up job.

There's no plot to get in the way of the story. What little narrative strands there are could possibly be deciphered by someone truly dedicated, but there really isn't any point, when it all boils down to an evil Cuban drug dealer (Blow's Jordi Mollà, boring) and his henchmen being chased by Smith and Lawrence. Who knows what the blond Haitian Rastafarians have to do with anything, or why the KKK decides to have a cross-burning on the waterfront in plain sight to celebrate the smuggling of narcotics. And what's the deal with Peter Stormare's campy Russian gangster, or Ultimate Fighter Oleg Taktarov as his incompetent associate? Don't know, don't care. Stuff gets smashed up real nice, though.

Some of the action bits feel like déjà vu. For the purposes of most who'll go see this film, however, that matters not a whit. Two and a half hours in an air-conditioned theater filled with explosions, crashes, and the odd truly funny bit of interplay between the stars, served up with a gleeful heaping of gratuitous profanity, may be exactly what the summer needs, and that's precisely what Bad Boys II delivers.

The spooky beauty of Elephant, Gus Van Sant's strange take on the Columbine massacre, arises not from the shock of sudden violence but from the filmmaker's steady gaze at the numbing routines of life inside a suburban high school. With what first looks like cool detachment, Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting) and his long-time cinematographer, Harris Savides, roam the halls of the school on a typical day, here catching a bit of giddy teenage gossip, there eavesdropping on a classroom discussion, next slipping into the cafeteria, where a clique of three girls with identical hairdos scrunch up their noses at the sandwiches and squares of chocolate cake. In the gym, an awkward kid in thick glasses struggles with the coach's insistence that she wear shorts.

Van Sant shows us some of the encounters two or three times, from different students' points of view, and our attention might wander from this chronicle of ordinariness (one of his inspirations was Frederick Wiseman's fly-on-the-wall documentary, High School) were it not for our foreknowledge of what's to come. In the four years since Columbine, no American can be led into the polished corridors of a high school without feeling the chill of dark possibility.

Van Sant's method here calls for establishing the dull but intimate rhythms of day-to-day life -- these are everybody's children, this is everyone's school -- then interrupting them with an eruption of fury that the director doesn't try to explain. Anyone shopping for insights into the motives of two young gunmen who calmly slaughter their classmates and teachers will need to look elsewhere. Elephant provides the atmosphere in which such an atrocity can happen, but there is no attempt at dramatic resolution. Despite giving us a glimpse of video game slaughter and a suggestive scene in which a boy playing a Beethoven piano piece suddenly smashes his hands onto the keys in a discordant jangle, the filmmaker is evidently as mystified as the rest of us by the kinks in the killers' brainwaves.

That's the weakness of his film, but in an odd way, also its strength. Using actual high school students in his hometown of Portland, Oregon as actors, Van Sant encouraged them to improvise their dialogue, to riff on the fears, joys, and concerns in their own lives, to produce a kind of psychodrama. What we get, in the end, is an authentically messy tapestry of adolescence in which the traumas remain open-ended, the conversations unfinished, the destinies invitingly unfulfilled. Every now and then, Savides's wandering camera catches a bank of dark clouds overhead, or a distant game of playground football, that seems as inexplicable as the tragedy about to unfold. In the common details of high school existence, fate and luck seem more crucial than will or intention. Turn one way down a hall and you live; walk the wrong way and you die. Pointing his automatic weapon at two classmates, one of the dispassionate, seemingly befogged killers begins to chant: "Eeny meeny miney mo," as if randomness itself were his only creed.

This is a deeply disturbing (if not very satisfying) view of what happened at Columbine and in other school shootings. Thinking human beings search for answers to hard riddles, and Van Sant seems even less willing to speculate about school violence than Paul F. Ryan, whose recent feature Home Room focused on the emotional effects of a Columbine-style disaster on two teenage girls. Still Van Sant's seeming remoteness may not be what it first seems. He doesn't try to explain anything, but in his austere, almost Oriental meditation on his cast's movements and moods, he vividly creates the sense that terror -- incoherent but omnipresent -- shadows all young lives, and that we'd best take note of their vulnerability. Offscreen, the director explains his title two ways: First, violence is the elephant in the room, so obvious that no one sees it; second, he recalls a Buddhist parable in which a group of blind men examine different parts of the animal -- ear, leg, trunk, and so forth -- after which each man is convinced he knows the nature of the elephant from the one part he touched. In other words, don't jump to conclusions. Van Sant certainly doesn't.

Elephant is not an agile film, and some viewers are sure to be irked by its inconclusiveness. But in the spaciousness of its concerns, it amplifies some burning questions about American life.

Where in hell does all this stuff come from?

That's a question constantly posed by readers, moviegoers, and half-soused nightclub audiences. What are the sources of an artist's art? What weird compulsion enables a performer to stand naked before the prying eye of a camera, an empty canvas, or a roomful of strangers who've all paid 30 bucks to get into the joint?

We don't get the complete answer from a new concert film-slash-documentary called DysFunKtional Family, but we do glimpse the dynamic interplay between one rising comedian's hilarious obsessions and the loving but screwed-up people who made him what he is. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wasn't what you'd call a laugh riot -- not with books that long -- but what he said about families still holds water: "All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

For young Eddie Griffin (the energetic centerpiece of TV's Malcolm & Eddie and the title character of Undercover Brother), an eventual career in stand-up comedy, dance, and music began in the streets of Kansas City, where his loving Moms once tried to run him down with the car, and his wayward Uncle Bucky was always getting busted for pimping, theft, or heroin possession. Many fatherless teenagers would have broken under the pressure; some would have done time in the penitentiary. Instead Eddie Griffin started using the pain to get laughs. His crucial inspiration? The same titan who has stirred an entire new wave of black comedians -- Richard Pryor.

In Family, director George Gallo (who first worked with Griffin on the mistaken-identity comedy Double Take) tries to show us how it happened. Frantically cross-cutting between a slick Griffin concert appearance in Chicago and a more rough-hewn look at the comic's family reunion in K.C., Gallo reveals just how literal and lifelike a lot of Griffin's material is. Like many other young black comedians -- Chris Rock, Cedric the Entertainer, and D.L. Hughley, to name just three -- he hits to all fields: race, sex, drugs, politics, religion, the follies and terrors of growing up. Like everyone else, Griffin can riff on, say, the contrast between a ghetto hustler's cool, spring-loaded street walk and a white guy's uptight lurch, and offer hyper-graphic bedroom bits stuffed with some awfully familiar misogyny and homophobia. As for verbal style points, Griffin never holds back. The final score in his linguistic battle royal: n-word 600, motherfucker 578.

Meanwhile we grab a little personal context -- if only a little. There's a fleeting videocam encounter with Eddie's mischievous Uncle Curtis, whose hobby was (and is) homemade pornography. We go for a ride with Uncle Bucky, who stopped getting into trouble only when his mother had a stroke. We get a recollection of Eddie's surrogate grandfather, a white man who gave him his first shot of Jack Daniel's at age thirteen, and a visit to Eddie's old junior high school, where an administrator gives him the same skeptical look she gave him in ninth grade. Think the Osbournes are strange? In the heavyweight championship of oddity, my money's on the Griffins.

Eddie Griffin's traumas, and the tough love he got from his family, are, of course, his precious raw material, with emphasis on the "raw." It's fascinating to speculate how he turned it into his act -- and into a defense against the old demons. Nietzsche's no funnier than Tolstoy, but the nasty old German, too, probably sheds some light on Griffin's artistic process: "A joke," he once wrote, "is an epitaph on an emotion."

A brilliant mimic with a gift for physical comedy -- the man can claw his way up the curtains and simulate an ass-whuppin' with the best of them -- Griffin has a couple of other things in common with his idol, Pryor, and with superb comics like Eddie Murphy. To wit: He has absolutely no fear of spilling his guts, offending his audience, or mocking his maker. Employing perfect pitch, he gives us Sammy Davis, Jr., selling Happy Meals at McDonald's, reinvents Bill Cosby as a pimp, and wryly comments on a momentary thaw in race relations occasioned by 9/11. He works up a shouting match between Jesus and Satan that might send fundamentalists running for the exits.

Hungry for more flash? Griffin is an accomplished pianist, so he plays the opening of Beethoven's Fifth (you know, dah-dah-dah-DUH) in the style of, say, Cecil Taylor, then imagines Alexander Graham Bell as a raving cokehead: "Hey. The man wants to talk to someone who's not even in the room!" As if the energy level weren't high enough, the whole rollicking psychodrama is encased in a surging wall of hip-hop. Suge Knight is producing the soundtrack on Tha Row, and it will likely prove as popular as this vivid snapshot of an artist and his history at work.

Ever since Amores Perros burst onto the international scene two years ago, Latin American cinema has been experiencing one of the most fertile periods in its history. Encompassing such works as Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También and Walter Salles's Behind the Sun, these socially conscious, frequently brutal portraits of life south of the border marry elements of Italian Neorealism with today's most sophisticated postproduction techniques to produce an in-your-face realism of visceral and dazzling power. The latest, and in many ways most impressive, entry in this burgeoning body of work is City of God (Cidade de Deus), which premiered at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and is Brazil's submission for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar.

The film's title refers to Rio de Janeiro's most notorious slum. A model housing project when the government built it in the 1960s, the favela fell victim to teenage drug dealers in the mid-1970s. Within ten years the situation had escalated into all-out war among rival street gangs.

City of God native Paulo Lins chronicled his neighborhood's descent into bloodshed and chaos in a massive, 700-page novel, which became the basis for the film. Emotionally gripping from start to finish, the movie presents an electrifying and unforgettable look at life in a place that God has all but forgotten.

The story is told through the eyes of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who in the film version yearns to be a photographer (rather than the writer Lins became, partially because it offered more cinematic possibilities). After a short but snazzy prelude set in the 1980s, the film jumps back to the 1960s, when Rocket is a sweet, shy child of eight. When he sees his first camera, he knows what he wants to do with his life.

This section, bathed in a kind of yellow glow, revolves around the Tender Trio, three teenaged friends -- one of them Rocket's older brother -- who hold up delivery trucks and engage in other petty crimes, but are not hardened criminals. A sense of naïveté washes over this section, reminiscent of old American Westerns. The boys hold up delivery trucks that dare to venture into the favela. Wearing kerchiefs across their faces like stagecoach robbers, they run alongside the vehicle, waving pistols and imagining themselves to be gunmen on horseback.

The film then jumps to the mid-1970s, when Rocket is fourteen or fifteen. This marks the beginning of the psychedelic era. Everyone is smoking marijuana and color suddenly floods the screen.

This is a happy time for Rocket and his friends. Rocket still longs to buy a camera and become a photographer. His childhood friend Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora) has a very different ambition: to become the most feared drug dealer in City of God. With several murders already under his belt, he is well on his way to achieving his dream. Li'l Zé's best friend Benny (Phellipe Haagensen) is also a drug dealer but more laid-back, the kind of guy who is liked by everybody.

The story's change in mood and tone is mirrored in the camera movements and editing style. The smooth, steady shots of the first section are replaced with slightly off-kilter framing and a hand-held camera. Things become even more urgent in the third section, the 1980s, when cocaine takes hold in the favela and drug wars break out among rival gangs. Camera movements are more volatile and shots are frequently out of focus, capturing the cold, tense, dangerous world that has suddenly erupted.

Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles early on decided to cast the picture with actual kids from the ghetto, many of them homeless and living on the streets. It was a ballsy move -- and absolutely the right one. The performances he and co-director Kátia Lund get out of these kids are nothing short of extraordinary. Of course many of them are just copying the behavior and actions that they see around them every day, a harrowing reality from which these children cannot escape.

A second key decision for Meirelles and his brilliant cinematographer César Charlone was to not glamorize the violence. Yes, the film is brutal, but the director eschews the exploding bodies and slow-motion ballets of death so common in Hollywood movies. Instead he wanted to suggest the disquietingly casual nature of violence that Lins describes in his novel.

Perhaps the film's most visually stunning sequence is the transition linking the film's five-minute prelude to the 1960s phase of the story. The mood is festive. The neighborhood is preparing food for an outdoor barbecue, killing and plucking chickens and throwing the fresh meat on the grill. One of the birds, sensing its fate, escapes down an alley, with eighteen-year-old Li'l Zé and his gang in hot pursuit, guns drawn. As they round a corner they come upon Rocket, who is walking down the middle of the street, holding his now-ubiquitous camera. Everyone yells at him to grab the chicken. As he attempts to sneak up on it he suddenly sees all the gang members freeze. He looks behind him to see what they are staring at and spots a line of policemen about to square off against Li'l Zé's gang. Rocket is caught dead-center between the two groups.

The scene, of course, is a metaphor for Rocket (although we don't realize it until later). Rocket is like those chickens, who can't escape their fate. And yet somehow this one chicken does escape.

"It was a blessing in the sky," says Felix Sama, co-host and DJ for Mun2's hot property, the daily live TV show The Roof. He's carrying bags full of records he just mixed live out of the Telemundo studios in Hialeah. The Roof's audience probably missed all the albums that fell directly onto the floor while Felix kept flipping them off the turntables, squeezing and stretching his four minutes of fame during the two-hour show that features artist interviews, live performances, news, and behind-the-scenes coverage as well as serving as a platform for new artists. "I don't have time to stop and put every album where it goes. I don't care if they fall, I have like ten copies of each at home," he says of why he doesn't put the records back in their sleeves. When he's spinning live on Mun2 (pronounce "moon-dose"; think of it as a quick translation for "worlds"), Felix just throws them off the turntables, literally. "I have to do my best in those four minutes," he believes.

When the Cuban-born DJ talks about a blessing in the sky he doesn't mean he's grateful for his vast record collection. He is talking about the radical shift in the channel's programming since last September, when most of Mun2's shows, which originally aired in Spanish, were gradually shifted over to English. Felix Sama, then, is a survivor. And at the same time, a symbol of the channel and the perfect synthesis of what is now so hot: the urban, Latino-rooted, English-speaking youth living in the U.S.

"In the beginning -- pa' decirte la verdá -- I was a little scared because I wasn't fluent in Spanish and I had the only bilingual show on the network," laughs Sama, who started out hosting the now-defunct music show Upbeat. "Sounds like, man, si me voy a quedar aquí [if I want to stay here] I have to improve my Spanish, you know? Fortunately things worked out when the programming went more to the English market. It was a blessing."

Cuban-born Yolanda Foster, Mun2's VP of programming and promotions, was there from minute one. She explains why the language of choice was Spanish when Mun2 launched in October 2001. That is to say, what happened to the channel that billed itself as the so-called "only Spanish-language general entertainment network committed to young U.S. Hispanics"?

"Being the new Telemundo sister network, we had more ability to get Spanish-language content," says Foster. "At the time Mun2 launched, we didn't have the census information that came very shortly afterwards, probably less than a month later."

Those numbers needed an immediate response. The 2000 U.S. Census revealed that 31 million Hispanics made up twelve percent of the U.S. population. While the median age of Hispanics is 24, fully two-thirds of those under 24 are born as bilingual U.S. citizens. Last year, the numbers kept climbing; the most recent update reports that there are now 37 million Hispanics in the United States, outnumbering African Americans as the nation's largest minority (not accounting for Hispanics who consider themselves both Hispanic and black). According to the Selig Center for Economic Growth, a Georgia-based public service unit, the buying power of U.S. Hispanics increased from 1990 to 1999 by more than 84 percent. By 2010, Hispanics are expected to have more than $900 billion to spend.

A year and a half ago network television giant NBC bought Telemundo for $1.98 billion plus stock options, an expensive move NBC made in order to target this growing segment of the U.S. population. "The vibrant Hispanic market accounts for a significant and growing share of the nation's economy and we are eager to draw on Telemundo's expertise to better serve this important audience," NBC chairman and CEO Bob Wright said at the time of the acquisition in October 2001. Telemundo chief operating officer Alan Sokol, who has been with the network since 1998, says that Mun2's language shift was "Telemundo's initiative," not NBC's. "NBC is very supportive, and they completely believe and buy into our plan and mission: There is a need for a channel that speaks to English-speaking Latinos in the U.S.," says Sokol.

As a family perk, NBC is giving Mun2 additional resources to increase its distribution. But Sokol knows that it's much easier to sell Mun2 as an English-language channel to national cable operators. "You're dealing with, say, a Joe Smith in Wichita, Kansas, who doesn't speak a word of Spanish. You're trying to sell him a Spanish service that he can watch but he won't understand, so if you try to sell him something in English he can go 'Oh, I get it, I've seen Jennifer Lopez, I know who Ricky Martin is, I know who Sammy Sosa is.'" [page]

At first, most of Mun2's Spanish content was created to air in Latin America and Spain through Telemundo International, where the network feeds its best shows. But the United States has proved to be a much more lucrative market. "There are many reasons to understand why the U.S. Hispanic market is our priority," says Foster. "Basically, the revenue base here is much bigger than what you can expect from Latin America, and I don't have to explain much about how bad things are in Latin America. So we had to adapt ourselves to the needs of that 18-24-year-old audience that prefers English programming if we wanted to get them at all."

"There is a large portion of the young Latino population in the U.S. that lives in an English-language world," says Sokol. "That audience, which we believe is large and advertiser-friendly, was not being represented anywhere on TV, and we felt that was the sweet spot to go after." To him, switching languages does not create a paradox. "It's an evolution," he assures. "What we did in Spanish was good, and I think it would have worked on a long-term basis, but I think the idea of having a predominantly English channel that targets young, urban, bilingual, and English-speaking Hispanics is a bigger market and a more available market."

And as for the huge number of South Americans arriving in the country on a daily basis who don't speak English and may feel lost watching the new Mun2? Sokol suggests that they check out Telemundo. Simply put, if you're young but don't speak or understand English, then why don't you watch last year's smash hit reality series Protagonistas de la musica or this year's Protagonistas de novela? Then again, how many people do you know who will mutter a "Thanks, but no, thanks"? Probably a lot, but definitely not enough. Not enough to make Mun2 go back to Spanish.

"We launched with music videos, a low rider show, an extreme sports show, and a talk show, all of them relevant among youth," enumerates Foster. She believes that Mun2 has a unique musical blend that includes reggaetón, pop, rock en español, and, mostly, hip-hop, the latter of which dominates The Roof. "That's the youth's most important music," she remarks. "Hip-hop is the biggest U.S. export these days. We receive videos from all over Latin America, and we can see how similar they look."

At first Mun2 looked an awful lot like the Miami-based MTV Latin America of the early Nineties, filled with smiling and hyper hosts talking over each other. The difference, though, was in the former network's heavy rotation of hip-hop, R&B, and Caribbean sure shots like reggaetón. Another was in Mun2's complete absence of Spanish dubbing or subtitles during its interviews with Anglo celebrities. Though common wisdom indicates that producers save a considerable amount of time and money when they don't have to create subtitles, Foster says the reason was to promote a bilingual culture.

"As a programmer, I have to admit that I never watched MTV Latin America. It never was our role model," says Foster, who sees the use of music as an international language as the one and only similarity between the two channels. MTV Latin America does not air in the U.S.; the Hispanic version of the channel is primarily available through digital cable on MTV-ES, which plays a strict diet of Latin videos.

In contrast, Mun2 reaches 5.8 million U.S. households and is broadcast in the top twenty U.S. Hispanic markets through basic cable (sometimes as part of an expanded basic service). According to Foster, the channel's audience has grown dramatically in the quarterly Nielsen television ratings since the talents began speaking English on camera in September 2002. However, Mun2's graphics, look, and general mood undoubtedly replicate the widely spread MTV formula. That is, colorful yet baroque TV sets, constantly moving cameras, extreme closeups, and of course, happy-happy, joy-joy hosts.

Dominican-born Anthony Perez, head of the independent production company Perfect Image and co-producer of eleven shows that air on Mun2 (including The Roof), remembers how viewers' positive reaction to Upbeat, one of the channel's early reggaetón and hip-hop shows, initially prompted the language jump. "When we saw how well things were going with Upbeat," says Perez, "I said 'Let's go full English,' and we did it." Aside from "stronger rating numbers," Perez swears to be surprised by the "huge reaction" Mun2 gets from Latin American countries. "We're receiving e-mails from all over Latin America, and written in English!" he marvels.

The reggaetón-oriented Jamz, hosted by Puerto Rican rapper Lisa M., and the rock en español show Planeta Rock, with Argentine host Gustavo Coletti, are the two exceptions to the new English-language rules. Truthfully, though, Lisa M. speaks both languages on camera, and Coletti gets less and less time on camera since Planeta Rock is turning into a Hispanic version of VH1's Behind the Music with plenty of Spanish-language voiceovers. But Planeta Rock's content will never go 100 percent English because "most of the band members in the alternative Latin rock world don't speak English," offers Perez, who produces both shows. [page]

But Perez anticipates some other changes, like promoting thirtysomething Felix Sama to a street reporter who will bring daily content to The Roof. WEDR-FM (99.1) DJ Frankie Needles, born in Miami to a Cuban father and a Puerto Rican mother, will eventually entirely replace Sama on the studio turntables. "He is a product of the generation that I'm targeting right now," says Perez of the 23-year-old DJ. But the final plan, according to the producer, is to later replace Needles, too, and bring in an even younger generation of college DJs.

One veteran from the previous Mun2 incarnation is Ricky Marchosky, a 34-year-old born in Panama and one of the hosts of Chat, an English-language talk show that originally aired in Spanish. Marchosky loves the one-hour show's live, interactive format because it allows viewers to exchange ideas and discuss controversial topics without editing. In fact, he surprised its original Latin American audience by coming out of his own closet, which is not seen too often in a Latin culture that is classically macho-oriented. Aware that his American audience is a little more open-minded, he now continues the closet saga in English. "We can have a show together," he once laughed on camera to The Roof's Venezuelan co-producer Mari Urdaneta. "We should call it Mari-con-Ricky."

Marchosky uses the Eighties TV show Qué Pasa, USA? as an example of something that wasn't necessarily seen as a gold mine in the past. "Twenty years ago many TV producers doubted [Qué Pasa, USA?] relevance, but its success proved them wrong," Marchosky notes. "Mun2's concept is relevant to the U.S. Hispanic society -- I mean, those of us with a Latin background that were raised in the American culture. I think it's a brilliant concept that has to be properly shaped and needs a lot of work, but still, it's a brilliant concept.

"Is the channel more relevant now? To the U.S. audience, definitely," he says, "and not only because it's spoken in English, but because it represents a bilingual culture."

While virtually no one in this country foresaw the American disaster in Vietnam, the late British writer Graham Greene glimpsed it with astonishing clarity a decade before the first U.S. "advisor" set foot on Vietnamese soil. Greene's 1955 novel The Quiet American, which has now been made into a disturbing and provocative film by the Australian director Phillip Noyce, is set in Saigon in 1952, amid the last paroxysms of the French misadventure in Indo-China and prior to our own. But Greene's title character, a naive U.S. spy named Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), presages the horrors to come. A hulking Cold War idealist with an obstinate devotion to cause, he unwittingly wreaks havoc in the name of democracy and poisons the lives of all those around him.

The suggestion, in Greene's book and in the film, that Americans acting on behalf of their government could be complicit in terrorism is explosive stuff in today's post-9/11 climate and, for that, Noyce's long-delayed film is bound to be anathema in some political circles. The atmosphere is not as nasty as Greene's original fiction, but the film is far more inflammatory than Joseph L. Mankiewicz's sanitized 1958 version, in which Audie Murphy's Alden Pyle was retooled as a heroic U.S. diplomat fighting the good fight against communism.

The sources of Graham Greene's vision include admirable skill as a novelist (his masterpieces include The Heart of the Matter, Brighton Rock, and The End of the Affair), his conversion to Catholicism, his service during World War II as an agent for British intelligence, and a lifelong scorn for almost all things American, from the cut of our suits to the presumptions of our foreign policy. Pyle is not just a character but a symbol of Yank chicanery, steeped in raw, self-righteous innocence.

But neither Greene nor Noyce -- who has completed a cinematic perfecta with his recent direction of the heartbreaking Aussie hit Rabbit-Proof Fence -- is concerned wholly with politics, and neither is willing to segregate Good from Evil. Those familiar with that region of the soul literary critics have long called "Greeneland" -- a spiritual purgatory where the obligations of faith and the nature of sin always come into question -- will find themselves uncomfortably at home with these characters, and in Noyce's steamy, beguiling Saigon. Like Greene's Haiti or his prerevolutionary Cuba, it is a place of back-alley deceptions, opium-scented decadence, and sudden violence: a netherworld visitors never quite grasp, despite their addiction to it.

Among the inhabitants, or intruders, we meet one Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), a world-weary British journalist who has detached himself not only from the dangerous, simmering politics he writes about but from his own emotions. A classic Greene type, played to cynical perfection by one of the world's great actors, Fowler soon finds himself in the kind of spiritual tug o' war he always seeks to avoid. A married man who's in love with a beautiful Vietnamese girl called Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), Fowler soon discovers he has a rival for his mistress's affections. It is, of course, the ever-eager Pyle, who woos Phuong with the same blind sincerity with which he pursues the secretive American mission in Saigon. Leave it to Greene, Noyce, and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) to paint this intrigue, too, in moral ambiguity. Like Vietnam itself, Phuong is a seductress who declines to be won. She is a force of nature who suffers abuse but endures, unchanged. If, half a century ago, we Americans needed warnings about what would befall our troops in the Mekong Delta or our politicians in the thickets of Southeast Asian diplomacy, we needn't have looked any farther than Phuong and The Quiet American. Instead we looked not at all and paid the price. Meanwhile our official certainties about policing the world look more stubborn than ever these days.

For director Noyce, The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence, his affecting drama about half-caste Aborigine girls fleeing government captivity, represent a startling return to form. Once considered a leading light on the Aussie independent scene, he took the cash to make Hollywood potboilers like Patriot Games and The Saint, so the intense emotions and highly personal style of his two new films come as a happy surprise. As for Brendan Fraser, whose résumé is littered with dumbed-down credits like Encino Man and George of the Jungle, American gives him his first opportunity since Gods and Monsters to show off some real acting chops. If the conservatives don't stone him to death for portraying Greene's meddlesome spook, he'll probably attract some more worthy offers.

While Brendan waits by the phone, we have the chance to behold this unsettling, morally complex, and timely view of American power abroad. Many will find it courageous and some, no doubt, will absolutely revile it, but no one will look away from the screen. Graham Greene, who died in 1991, would likely welcome the ensuing arguments.

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